Our minibus was packed to the gunwales with four children, furniture, bedding, tools, clothes and toys. Hundreds of miles of road and two sea crossings lay ahead of us. I felt like writing ‘Cork or bust’ on the side of the bus.
With my wife on maternity leave, and with my having the opportunity to work remotely some of the time, we had decided to take an extended Christmas break in Ireland. That way we could catch up properly with family and friends, and at the same time renovate our old farmhouse in West Cork. The kids were even going to attend the local school for a few weeks. All I had to do was get us there.
This was going to be a big adventure for all of us. I had even bought the older children little diaries, so they could keep a record of their trip. They were going to tell their classmates all about school-life in Ireland when they got home. As we drove along, in between games of I spy, I was teaching the kids to count, as Gaeilge, and key phrases such as, “an bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí and leithreas”.
The journey took us from the Isle of Wight, across the Solent, through the New Forest and the rolling hills of Wiltshire and Somerset.
We stopped in Bath for lunch, and for a visit to the famous Roman baths, which fascinated the older kids. They could even touch and taste the warm mineral water from the ancient hot spring. Nightfall saw us pull into a quirky self-built cottage in South Wales. The next day we sailed to Ireland.
After three years living on the Isle of Wight, with only fleeting trips back, it felt like a homecoming as the lights of Wexford appeared on the horizon. After a few hours driving – and several stops to feed the baby – we eventually rolled up at my parents’ house.
The kids gleefully jumped out and ran into their arms. The next day, we arrived at our 18th-Century farmhouse, which stood strong, despite five years of being rented out. It had been home to the older kids, and it retained a talismanic quality for them as the ‘special house’, and their true place in the world.
The old house embraced us warmly, like an old friend. The rambling old place provided a bedroom for everyone. My eldest girl looked like the cat that got the cream when she learned that she would not have to share with her little sister, who does not quite share her housekeeping standards, shall we say.
We kitted out her bedroom nicely, and there was even room for a sofa overlooking the garden – perfect for a girl who spends hours sitting quietly, lost in books.
Even though it was only for a few weeks, we wanted the kids to fit in, and so we bought them uniforms for school. These were not your modern, comfortable tracksuit top and polo-shirt uniforms, I was glad to see. These were proper, traditional Irish school uniforms: an itchy wooly v-necked jumper, an uncomfortable hard collar and a school tie.
There was also proper, traditional Irish weather as we walked the kids to school on their first day: torrents of West Cork rain bucketed down around us as we waded through puddles to the gate.
On arrival, the kindly head teacher showed us to their classroom. The arrival of two new children mid-term was big news in this small rural school. Kids wandered up and said hello. Some initially stared at them as though they were museum exhibits.
The class teacher arrived and settled them nicely, but we could see how overwhelmed they were by the situation. Would this be a disaster? An anxious morning followed, but all our fears vanished as they skipped sunnily out of school at home time, full of chat about all the new friends they had made – one boy even stopped to give my boy a high-five. As I tucked him in that night, my son smiled and said: “I love my life here.”
All had changed in a few short days, but all was well.